What happened to Al Qaeda? a Trueslant colleague asked me. First it was the Underpants Bomber setting his genitals on fire, and now the Times Square bomber who displayed explosives skills worthy of Moe, Larry and Curly (if the Three Stooges had decided to commit mass murder). It’s a sign of how weary, frightened and resigned we have become to terrorism that we’re almost more disturbed when a bomb doesn’t go off than when it does.
Why are the latest terrorist bombers so inept? I think the easiest answer is that terrorist bomb-making is like journalism. Anybody can do it, but not everybody can do it well. Back in high school in the ’70s, I had friends who chortled over the Anarchist’s Cookbook and its easy-to-use recipes for making plastic explosives. They never tried them out, but if they had, I’m pretty sure the only place they would have managed to blow up was their parents’ basement.
During the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers around 2000, the Israelis discovered that while any jihadi schmuck could wrap a bomb around his stomach, the bombs themselves were made by a few craftsmen. So the Israelis made a point of tracking down the bombmakers, and then dispatching an Apache helicopter to fire a Hellfire missile through their window. The U.S. has adopted this model, using CSI-style forensic analysis of IED attacks. Eliminate the bomb craftsmen, and even if the attacks won’t stop, they will be less effective.
We still think of the old Al Qaeda dispatching large, highly trained terrorist teams to blow up embassies and hijack airliners in meticuously planned operations. But Al Qaeda accomplished that when it was largely under the radar and (foolishly) discounted as a threat. Whatever centralized leadership it had is dead or at least dispersed, and terrorists have learned what the Mafia knows; a 12-man conspiracy is an invitation to get caught. The new Al Qaeda is just a decentralized organization that trains eager, young fanatics in how to build bombs, and then sends them out on solo missions. I think we will discover that the Times Square bomber received some training in Pakistan, returned to the United States, and tried to apply what he learned. But Faisal Shahzad was a junior financial analyst, not an engineer. Him trying to build a bomb was like my mother trying to change the timing belt on her car.
Is this development good or bad? Well, is the transformation of journalism from paid professionals to an army of part-time bloggers good or bad? It’s just different. The good news from Times Square was that an inept bomber rigged a device that didn’t go off. If Osama Bin Laden had opted for a car bomb on 9/11, you can be sure that it would have gone off. The bad news is that any angry Muslim-American – or white militiaman, or just a motivated psycho – can build a bomb. There’s a good chance that it won’t go off, or if it does, the only person the bombmaker will kill be himself. But we won’t see them coming. And given enough chances, they will succeed.